My horse is impressive. She’s one of the most complicated horses I’ve ever met, and she’s definitely the most sensitive. She’s got spirit to spare, she’s fairly athletic, and her mind goes 100 mph. She’s a showoff. She is everything I love about Saddlebreds and everything I dislike about Saddlebreds. She’s petite, but she’s about as easy to handle as an unruly racehorse. At our barn full of [traditionally trained] eventers and jumpers, she sticks out like a giraffe in a herd of wildebeest. And I love her to death.
Recently, though, I’ve been a little discouraged at how slowly Dancer and I are progressing with our “language” learning. At this point, she is usually too unconfident to trot on a loose rein – she has a hard time carrying herself at all without micro-management and she is still sometimes highly reactive to pressure around her head, even if she is “yielding.” We haven’t hacked out on the cross country course in months because she hasn’t been confident enough in the arena. There have been hoof problems and attitude problems to negotiate, herd dynamic fluctuations to adjust to and plenty of bad weather to wait out. (Additionally, between a full-time load at college and four jobs, I’m not as consistent as I’d like to be with my horsemanship.)
In short, it’s not been the summer of huge improvement that I imagined.
But there have been so very many victories, friends. A few recent comments:
“Wow, Dancer carries herself really well!” (said to me while we were riding at a walk, playing the “follow the rail” game)
“That horse LOVES you, Sarah. She doesn’t respond that way to anyone else.”
“Dancer is so sweet. Not sweet like, gentle, but sweet in the kind of way where she wants to be loved on. She’s definitely not gentle. But she is so sweet.”
“She’s not as bad as she could be – she comes back down to earth really quickly. You handle her so well.” (said to me by our farrier, who gets to see Dancer’s full “potential” when it comes to reactivity…)
There have been other successes, too: the day Dancer jumped crossrails like she had been doing it her whole life, no worries in the least. The day Dancer finally learned that pressure doesn’t always mean go forward/faster/farther. The day Dancer was really nervous and I scratched her withers until she was “grooming” me back. The hundreds of times she nickers to me in the crossties – every time I walk away and come back.
Sometimes I get frustrated that my horse is “the crazy horse” and that each moment takes intentionality and effort and lots of emotional fitness on my part. But on other days, when it is obvious to others that Dancer and I have a deep connection that outweighs our worst days, I smile.
That goofy girl is mine and she is adorable, even if she’s terrified that the wash stall is going to eat her or if she accidentally steps on her leadrope and thinks a mountain lion has just landed on her neck. Now, she’s always learning, not just reacting or submitting. I’m learning that this subtle change is enough.
I’m learning that our baby steps are snowballing. Our groundwork is translating wonderfully to the saddle, and Dancer’s confidence is only increasing as my leadership skills develop. I am learning just how sensitive Dancer is and just how little effort it takes to communicate to my genius girl. This also means that I am learning just how little energy it takes to totally ruin her confidence – it happens all the time. But our foundation is growing and people at our barn are starting to notice!
“Performance equals Potential minus Interference.” -Pat Parelli
With the amount of potential Dancer’s got, I can learn to work through a few [hundred] interferences.
One day, trailers won’t freak her out so much. One day, we’ll go for a nice hack in the cross country field without an adrenaline spike or a spook. One day, we’ll wade through the water trap and enjoy it. One day, I’ll be able to ride Dancer bridleless over jumps and play with her at liberty the same way I do now with a rope.
But for now, I’m thrilled when she drops her head and yawns during her farrier visit, licks her lips in the wash stall or transitions from a walk to a trot without getting emotional. I’m thrilled when she turns her head and asks me a question at the gate or paws at a barrel out of curiosity, and I am over the moon excited when she trots to meet me in the pasture.
I am a good enough horsewoman for this horse. I am enough.
She is enough.